255. The Wisdom in Wombat Poop: A Strategic Leadership Lesson
Combine a wombat with Xerox and Kodak, and what you get is an important strategic leadership lesson on how to fit a square peg in a round hole.
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255. The Wisdom in Wombat Poop: A Lesson In Strategic Leadership
Here’s an interesting fact:
Wombats are the only animals in the known universe that poop in squares.
For clarity, I’m not saying that a bunch of wombats stand in a square formation to poop. They aren’t square dancing, and they certainly aren’t a marching band.
What I mean is that every wombat’s feces is shaped like a cube.
I thought so, too.
If you don’t know what a wombat is, I’m going to tell you, ‘cause that’s the kinda guy I am.
A wombat is what happens if a capybara and a Teddy Bear have a love child. However, unlike its parents, a wombat isn’t a rodent or a stuffed animal. It is a marsupial, closer in relation to a kangaroo or a koala than anything else.
Like 70% of all other marsupials and 100% of all vegemite eaters, the wombat lives in Australia.
None of this is important to my story. I just wanted to make sure you got the image of the furry creature pooping out a casino’s quantity of dice.
But fear not, amigo, there’s actually a point to all of this. And the point lies in the strategic leadership lesson buried within the wombat's poop.
But I will get to that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about Kodak.
That Time Kodak Could’ve Used Some Strategic Leadership
Here’s an interesting fact that you probably never cared about but are going to in a minute:
Kodak invented the digital camera.
No, not really.
After all, Kodak was in the camera business already. They were the leading photo film company in the world.
Inventing the digital camera was a big step forward. It was such an important move it could’ve transformed their business from the analog film of the 20th century to the digital world of the 21st.
In fact, with this invention, Kodak was positioned to be the most important brand name in digital photography.
Instead, it led them to bankruptcy.
You see, though they invented the digital camera, they ignored any growth strategy around digital photography. Instead, Kodak continued to focus its efforts on the operations of the traditional photo film business.
In the blink of an eye, the digital revolution steamrolled over Kodak. They invented the future and had no strategic leadership vision to own it. So they all but disappeared.
Which leads us to Xerox.
The name Xerox was so popular in the photocopier market that the brand was practically synonymous with the term “make a copy.”
Back in the 1970s and 80s, “make a Xerox of this” was as common a saying as “let me Google that” is now.
Here’s an interesting fact you probably don’t know:
Xerox invented the personal computer.
And the laser printer.
Oh, and they invented ethernet. And the computer mouse.
And so many other things.
It’s safe to say that Xerox paved the path for the entire computer age. They discovered a generation of products that are standard fare in today’s world.
But discovering something means nothing if you don’t do anything with it.
Though Xerox had so many groundbreaking inventions that would change the world, they didn’t prioritize a growth strategy to incorporate those items into their business model.
Instead, Xerox continued to prioritize its operations in the copier business. It was a strategic leadership failure.
Rather than building personal computers, Xerox decided they’d be better off simply licensing their personal computer technology to someone else.
Along came this ambitious youngster who thought Xerox’s ideas were pretty cool. The kid convinced Xerox to license their technology to him in exchange for a few shares of his startup company.
The kid’s name was Steve Jobs.
Yadda yadda yadda…
Apple became the largest company in the world, built on the back of Xerox’s invention of the personal computer and some great strategic leadership.
Xerox went bankrupt.
And this, of course, brings us right to the wombat and the importance of square poop in your leadership life.
You Can’t Force A Square Peg Into A Leadership Lesson
One of the most commonly cliched idioms in the human language is: “trying to fit a square peg through a round hole.”
I’m guessing you know the meaning, right?
It’s when you try to make something fit where it doesn’t belong.
In the business world, it might be used when a company moves an employee to a role that doesn’t match their skillset. For instance, if a technically savvy software developer is put in a strategic marketing role, it would be like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole.
I’ve got a fundamental problem with this square-peg-round-hole thinking. Kodak and Xerox are prime examples of my problem, which is probably why I brought them up in the first place.
When people say you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole, they are always referring to it as a matter of effort.
The thinking is that you’d have to force the company to do something that it is operationally unable to do at that time.
Therein lies the problem.
To fit a square peg in a round hole is not about operations and effort; its about strategy.
Let me explain.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #1: Transformation Takes Time
As a strategic leadership consultant, I work with many companies that need to transform themselves in order to grow.
In fact, many of my consulting clients are 30-130-person, founder-led companies. Almost every founder-led company at that stage must transform itself to get beyond its plateau.
But transformation is not an overnight thing.
You don’t flip a switch and suddenly improve company culture.
You don’t press a button and suddenly triple your sales.
You don’t try to pound a peg through the wrong hole and expect everything not to break into pieces.
If a company has become used to operating in a certain way, sudden changes to those operations will usually create more chaos than calm.
Kodak couldn’t immediately turn into a digital camera company.
Xerox couldn’t immediately turn into a personal computer company.
Your teenager won’t immediately start cleaning their room every day when they’ve been a slob for most of their life despite your efforts to help them change, which always seems to lead to arguments anyway.
[Editor’s Note: Ummm…disregard that last one. Not your problem.]
Darwin’s Peg In The Strategic Leadership Game
The wombat didn’t magically come into existence with its poops already cubed. If poop were meant to be square, it would be that way for more than just one living being.
Tap into your inner Charles Darwin for a second.
The wombat creates square feces for a reason - an evolutionary reason. It has a purpose, and over a period of time, evolution slowly altered its bodily operations to achieve its ultimate goal: cubed poop.
The wombat’s poop is living proof that, with a focus on purpose, strategy, and patience, you can, in fact, fit a square peg through a round hole.
How does this apply to business and strategic leadership? Great question.
Leadership Lesson #2: How To Fit Your Square Peg Into Your Round Hole
We’ve already established that pounding the peg through the hole won’t work. That’s operationally simplistic thinking.
In the words of Steve Jobs, you need to think different.
Caveman thinking will try to force the square peg through the round hole.
Strategic leadership will try to think of creative ways to make them fit.
How about this…
Go to your toolbox and take out a wood file.
Slowly file down the sides of that round hole.
One day, you file a little piece off here.
The next day, it’s a little piece there.
It doesn’t feel like things are changing that much. In fact, maybe nobody even notices anything different from one day to the next.
But after a while of focused filing, people may suddenly notice that the round hole is turning into a different shape. And with enough time, that square magically fits perfectly into the hole, as if it were meant to be there in the first place.
To do this in the real world, there are three important elements:
Understand your end goal
Develop the strategy to get there
Have the patience to make it happen
Strategic Leadership Lesson #3: A Real World, Peg-Into-Hole Example
Let’s say you want to create a more transparent culture. That’s the goal.
Maybe you start with an assessment of how team members view the current level of transparency.
Once you finish that assessment, you probably should be transparent with the team about the results. After all, the goal is transparency, right?
Perhaps then you ensure transparency becomes a part of your company’s core values. Once it’s part of the core values, you begin to integrate the values into employee reviews and weekly 1-on-1s. You have transparent discussions with employees about transparency.
Meanwhile, you focus on increasing transparent discussion on Slack or Teams or whatever communications platform you fancy. If you don’t use a communication platform, it’s probably a good time to download Slack and tell your team that you’re doing it to help create more transparency.
I’m sure you see where this is going.
Each step is like filing away another part of that round hole. With enough of these small filing efforts and some patience, you will have transformed the hole to allow the square peg to fit in perfectly.
So next time you are intimidated about trying to make the impossible possible, discard that Xerox and Kodak model of operational planning and embrace the evolution of the wombat’s cubed poop.
With just a little purpose, strategy, and patience, you too can make your impossible come true.
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Somewhat Relevant Quote
“The problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.”
Paul Collins - Journalist, no relation to Phil
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